A Flower That Blooms for a Single Day … oops a Single Night!
The plant we are featuring in this hunt, commonly known as Datura, and in the Nightshade family, is unusual in many ways. First it has several names, among them: Devil’s Trumpet, Devil’s Weed and Jimson Weed*. And, unlike the Miner’s Lettuce and Willow of previous Treasure Hunts, Datura thrives in dry, temperate and subtropical regions like the American Southwest and Mexico, which is considered the center of its origin. This amazing Datura photo, was taken by Chris Brems on the eastern coastal trail where the paragliders lift off. (Plaque in the ground at this spot reads “Hook In”.) The photo illustrates the fascinating process described in the story below.
A Colorado River Tale
I became aware of this beautiful and interesting plant on a Colorado River trip decades ago. At the end of an exciting day of rapids and magnificent scenery, and while waiting for dinner, a guide pointed to a greenish, unimposing plant in our camp. He urged us to “watch that plant”. Since this guide was quite the joker, we laughed a lot and then told him we would follow orders, and “watch the plant”.
What we saw … as we giggled at the idea of watching a plant … was a furled bud sticking up in the air. It looked like it was bound up with some tiny “hooks”. Then, within a few minutes, the bud began to unfurl, one hook at a time. We were stunned! You could almost hear it going click, click, click as it unfolded into a beautiful trumpet-like flower. It was the Sacred Datura, also called Moonflower, because it blooms late in the afternoon, is pollinized at night, and closes by noon of the following day. While each individual flower lasts only a single night, during any given summer season, one Sacred Datura plant produces dozens of large (6-8 inches), fragrant, whitish (sometimes purple edged) flowers, each with five of the slender hooks that are called “teeth”.
What Happens During the Night?
As you might expect, night-blooming plants must be pollinated by nocturnal visitors, so Datura are pollinated by Sphinx Moths. These evening visitors can be seen feeding on the opened (and short-lived) flowers using a long proboscis that unfurls to reach to the nectar at the base of the bloom. On rare occasions, when Sphinx Moths are not present, pollination can be achieved at dusk and dawn by Honeybees. However, the bees have to work a lot harder, since they don’t have the moth’s long proboscis. As moths and bees gather nectar, they inadvertently assist in pollinating the flowers they visit. This process has something for everyone …
Mother Nature’s win-win! By noon, about 18 hours after it bloomed, the pollinated flower turns over, closes up and forms a spiny, globe-shaped seed pod called a Thorn Apple. When ripe, the Thorn Apple splits to release seeds and begin the process again.
Datura can be found in several places around More Mesa, on Hope Ranch and on trails and paths all over the Goleta Valley.
*The name “Jimson weed” is said to have originated form the presence of a similar species in Jamestown, Virginia. The name “Jamestown” was corrupted to “Jimson” at some point in time.
Datura species have been revered as sacred visionary plants among almost all cultures around the world that have encountered it. Archeological evidence shows that Datura has been in use for at least 3,000 years in the southwestern United States and even longer in other parts of the world. Datura was an integral part of daily life for the Native American Chumash of our region, used both as a sacred and medicinal plant.
Indeed, the Chumash were known to have used this plant more than any other native culture in California. Use of Datura was so ubiquitous that it appears to have worked its way into the famous pictographs of the Chumash. For example, archeologists have interpreted the spiny silhouette around the circles in this pictograph to be Datura fruit; the Thorn Apple. Where is this famous pictograph? Right here in Santa Barbara at Painted Cave Historic Park!
Epilogue on Pictograph: To ensure that this Treasure Hunt was accurate and responsibly presented, I consulted two of the most eminent Chumash scholars; Dr. Jan Timbrook and Dr. John Johnson, both of the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History. I asked them to comment on the interpretation of the pictograph. Neither of them had ever heard of the Thorn Apple interpretation. Moral of the story … The Internet is not a scholarly journal. (Go see the pictograph anyway. It’s very cool!)
Also while researching this Treasure Hunt, I discovered that Datura was associated with witches, devils, flying, shape-shifting and transformation. And I also remembered a book that achieved great notoriety in the late 1960s. It was called “The Teachings of Don Juan” and written by an anthropology student named Carlos Casteneda. There was a lot of flying and shape shifting in that book too. Why? Most likely because Datura is a serious hallucinogen and one must take the caution below seriously … very seriously!
While Datura is an interesting plant to observe, observing is all one should do with it! All species of Datura and all parts of the plant are highly poisonous!
In her acclaimed recent book, Chumash Ethnobotany, Dr. Jan Timbrook warns
“Every year people die from ingesting Datura through foolhardiness or misidentification. The dangerous compounds can also be absorbed through the skin.”
Although we are encouraging you to go outside and find these treasures, you do not have to leave anything in exchange. Please carry out all your trash. The onslaught of people onto More Mesa is heartening in that “new to more Mesa” folks will learn to appreciate it, and those who were familiar with More Mesa will cherish it even more. But trash is both unsightly and takes away from its spectacular beauty of More Mesa. Most importantly, please, please pick up after your dogs. The “Poop Fairy” is on Lockdown and cannot clean up after absent-minded dog owners.